Ohio officials celebrate the life of a public servant

By MARC KOVAC C-N Capital Bureau Published:

COLUMBUS -- Elected officials past and present gathered at the Statehouse Thursday to celebrate the life and public service of John Gilligan, the one-term Democratic Ohio governor lauded for saying and doing the right thing regardless of the cost to his political career.

"Today is not about grieving ... ," Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman said during an opening invocation, in which he spotlighted Gilligan's "courage to stand up for the poor, the needy, for the political and economic rights of minorities and women, for children and their future and the mental health of thousands, (and for) an open and transparent government for all people all the time."

A funeral mass was held Wednesday at Gilligan's home church in Cincinnati.

More than 400 people, including Gov. John Kasich and former Govs. Ted Strickland and Dick Celeste, were on hand for Thursday's Statehouse ceremony, which focused on Gilligan's public life.

Gilligan served as governor from 1971-75 and is remembered for establishing the state's income tax and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

The "Life of Service" section of his celebration program included a lengthy list of other accomplishments -- Silver Star for Gallantry for his U.S. Navy service at the Battle of Okinawa; longtime Cincinnati city councilman; a three-year stint in Congress; two years as administrator of a federal agency; more than a decade in various posts at the University of Notre Dame; and, finally, eight years on the Cincinnati school board.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown recounted the encouragement he received from Gilligan early in his political career and the sacrifices Gilligan made for the good of the state.

"Our state and nation are better places because of Jack Gilligan," Brown said, adding, "He knew he might pay a price for bold political action. He understood with political courage comes political risk, and Jack Gilligan... was willing to take risks."

Brown, Gilligan's four children and others spoke of the former governor's staunch liberal leanings -- his fight to support unions in the late 1950s while on the Cincinnati city council, his push for a state income tax to better fund schools, his advocacy for the mentally ill.

"The politics of Jack Gilligan never shied from the most complicated issues or put aside the real solution because it would be too difficult or too costly," said son John P.

Mark Shields, a political columnist and longtime friend, recalled the miserable state of the state's mental hospitals when Gilligan took office and his work to ensure the afflicted received better care.

Gilligan's eldest son, Donald, talked about the people who would call the house while his family was eating supper -- individuals of no public importance, many with mental health issues or addictions. Gilligan, he said, would leave the table and talk to them or sometimes invite them over.

"Dad gave voice to those who had no voice," said Ellen, the youngest of Gilligan's four children.

Kathleen Sebelius followed her father's footsteps into public office, serving as governor of the state of Kansas and currently U.S. Secretary of Human Services under President Barack Obama.

She called her father a "study in contrasts" -- a man who attended and sent his children to private schools but who advocated for public education, a decorated war veteran who battled for peace, a "young man of privilege who became the voice of the poor and the disenfranchised."

"John Joyce Gilligan now leaves a clan of 27...," Sebelius said. "We'll miss him terribly but know the best way to keep his memory alive is to laugh a lot, to love each other well and to continue to serve, to give voice to those who need someone to speak up for them and a place at the table for those who are pushed aside."

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